Thursday, December 30, 2010

a modest proposal

As readers of this little corner have probably noticed, the hardships endured by foreigners trying to live, make friends and stay sane in Japan have been a long-standing concern of mine (see here and here and here e.g). Hence I can't remain indifferent to the assumptions and advice contained in an article like this one recently published in The Japan Times (thanks, Antonio!), consisting of interviews with three long-term residents, two of whom are now Japanese nationals.

The article is a bit too long to reproduce here, so I'll just refer interested readers to the link. I must say, however, that I have serious misgivings about the blokeish, patronising, and ultimately self-satisfied tenor of the remarks on the part of both the interviewer and the interviewees. On the one hand, it rightly points the finger at Japanese xenophobia, general attitudes of distrust towards others outside their inner circle, shocking social inequalities and stuffy hierarchies. Yet, on the other hand, it winds up with the complacent and spurious reasoning that there's nothing much to worry about since these problems afflict not only foreigners but the Japanese themselves, especially if they belong to some disadvantaged social group or dare be different from the rest of the herd. There's even a politically correct bow to 'gay and transgender individuals' --- nice! How very... inclusive.

Interestingly, the solution offered by the three 'wise men' is not to fight and try to change these unacceptable inequalities and discriminations. Nope. The answer to the problem is 'understanding and flexibility in making the most of life in Japan':

'Compared to some other countries, people in Japan have extremely different sets of values and ways of reasoning. But if you can understand these differences and the reasons for them you can stop feeling anti," [Peter Barakan] explains. "Try to understand this society and the people as best you can. People are people.'

Wise words of advice and sound reasoning indeed. Oscar Wilde's equally wise words and reasoning echo in my mind: 'whatever is understood is right'... Go with the flow and preserve the status quo --- and thou shall thrive in Japan! (shall I presume that the advice to those who don't is perhaps: pack your stuff and leave...?) It's certainly no coincidence that the three interviewees are affluent, successful gentlemen in their respective fields: one is a former sumo champion from Hawaii, the other a British musicologist and media talking head, the other still 'the first foreign-born member of the Diet's House of Councilors of European [Finnish] descent'. All of them belonging to fields widely known for their impeccable and transparent ethical standards. The very best that the Japanese peculiar democratic system has to offer, no doubt.

And yet, wouldn't it also be fascinating to hear the views of three successful, high-profile foreign ladies who have made it in Japan by going with the flow and preserving the status quo --- or, shall I perhaps say, through their immense 'understanding and flexibility' towards the deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny of this male-dominated society which generally treats women like chattel and cute accessories, and doesn't hesitate to cowardly trample upon those who fall short of the standards by daring to be articulate and assertive and (God forbid!) intellectual?

Which reminds me of a recent conversation with a Japanese male friend. In response to my half-mocking, half-irritated remark on the general meek and demure performance of Japanese women in public, he defensively argued that the ladies are actually pillars of strength when it comes to household management --- they really have brass balls and know how to handle men with an iron grip! My contrarian nature (so un-lady like, alas) couldn't resist prying further into the matter, and so I asked him what the concept of 'strong' possibly means when referring to a woman in... er... modern Japan. The reply was, of course, exactly what I'd expected and have been observing ever since I set my feet here: 'strong' women are those who stoically humour and put up with their immature, childish partners, and who virtuously give up their brains and careers to stay at home catering to their overworked, mostly absent husbands and raising their little brats to behave in exactly the same way, so that everything remains the same ever after, amen. With women like these, who needs machos indeed? With women like these, why should men ever need to grow up?

And no, gentle reader, I'm not deviating from my original subject matter. What I'd really like to know more about is how foreign --- and especially non-Asian --- women living in Japan feel about and tackle all these typical sexist attitudes and standards (on top of the blatantly discriminatory attitudes most Japanese show towards foreigners in general), and whether they actually manage in the long run to survive and thrive in this transvestite patriarchy by following the advice of our three wise men.

I shall then take my leave with this modest proposal. Dear Charles Lewis & other like-minded wise men, I'm all ears...

Charles Lewis asks three wise men from afar for their take on some of the issues that vex long-term foreign residents
The Japan Times: Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010.

Image: 'Booth babes' bowing and waving in line (

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


One belongs in the place one longs for.
                    Robert Walser, The Tanners, trans. S. Bernofsky
                                                                    (NY: New Directions, 2009).

(Which is most probably nowhere in this world - and most definitely not where you are now.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Eye to eye with the unwanted

This recent article by Ian Buruma in The Japan Times on shameful immigration policies in Europe has struck a chord with me. I was, however, somewhat puzzled by Buruma's restraint in relation to Japan, whose deeply ingrained xenophobia and shabby attitudes towards immigrants by far surpass anything currently seen in Europe or the States.

My fairly 'high' social status and occupation here have not shielded me from disrespectful and discriminating racist attitudes (not to mention misogynist ones, but that's another long story) both in the public and private spheres - and I do pay all my taxes and contribute with my work to the Japanese economy -, so I can imagine the plight of those whose ethnic origins and social status have denied them access to the rights of citizenship.

*       *       *

Eye to eye with the unwanted

NEW YORK — Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the 21st-century French president, have one thing in common: All were sons of immigrants.

People have migrated to other countries for thousands of years — to escape, prosper, be free or just to start again. Not a few enriched their adopted homelands by achieving great things or producing children who did.

New waves of immigrants are rarely, if ever, popular. But they are often needed. Many people have migrated to Western European countries from North Africa and Turkey during the last half-century, not because of Western generosity, but because they were required for jobs that natives no longer wanted. They were treated as temporary workers, however, not as immigrants.

Once the job was done, it was assumed that the migrants would go home. When it became clear that most had elected to stay, and were joined by extended families, many were grudgingly allowed to become citizens of European states, without necessarily being treated as such.

Xenophobes, as well as leftist multicultural ideologues, regarded these new Europeans as utterly different from the native born, albeit for different reasons. Multiculturalists saw attempts to integrate non-Westerners into the Western mainstream as a form of neocolonialist racism, while xenophobes just didn't like anything that looked, talked or smelled foreign.

We who live in rapidly aging societies, such as Western Europe or Japan, still need immigrants. Without them, necessary institutions, such as hospitals, would be unstaffed, and more and more elderly people would have to be supported by fewer and fewer young people.

And yet many politicians, especially in Europe, now treat immigration as a disaster. New populist parties garner large numbers of votes simply by frightening people about the supposed horrors of Islam, or of clashing civilizations. Mainstream politicians are so afraid of this populist demagoguery that they often end up mimicking it.

The failure of integration of non-Western immigrants in such countries as France, Germany or The Netherlands is often exaggerated by hysterical alarmists; Europe, after all, is not about to be "Islamized." But the fact that some young people of African, South Asian or Middle Eastern descent feel so alienated in the European countries of their birth that they are happy to murder their fellow citizens in the name of a revolutionary religious ideology means that something is amiss.

Children of past immigrants, however unwelcome they might feel, rarely wished to blow up the places to which their parents had chosen to move. Politics in many Muslim countries is partly to blame. Islamist extremism is a handy revolutionary creed for vulnerable young people to latch onto, to gain a sense of power and belonging. Hindus, Christians or Buddhists lack such a cause, which is why political terrorism is largely confined to Muslims.

But as the occasional riots in French immigrant areas show, violence is not confined to Muslims. National policies have something to do with this, but so do the deeply flawed immigration policies in all European Union countries.

Apart from EU citizens, who in theory are allowed to seek work anywhere in the Union (Romanian Gypsies in France might argue otherwise), three other categories of people have been allowed to settle in Europe: former colonial subjects, such as Algerians in France, Indians and Pakistanis in Britain, or Surinamese in The Netherlands; "guest laborers" who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s; and political refugees, the so-called asylum-seekers. Unlike in Canada or the United States, economic immigrants are not allowed to become citizens in exchange for their necessary labor.

Immigrants — not "guest workers" — who come for work are more likely to want to integrate to some degree, and to be treated as fellow citizens, than people who come with the baggage of empire, or simply as refugees, or, worse, people pretending to be refugees because they have no other way to gain access to wealthy countries' job markets. But European welfare states are better equipped to deal with asylum-seekers and other newcomers as needy dependents than as people in need of a job.
When European politicians claim that France, Britain or The Netherlands are not traditional "immigrant countries" like the U.S., they are right only up to a point, as the examples of Spinoza, Disraeli and Sarkozy show. What is true is that large numbers of de facto immigrants have accumulated in many countries in a very short time, in a haphazard way that makes it seem as though no government was ever in control.

Children of guest workers feel unwanted. Refugees languish helplessly in welfare nets, or are suspected of being cheats. And former colonial subjects, though in many cases remarkably well integrated, still bear the scars of troubled imperial histories.

Japan, and even the U.S., is not immune to these problems, either. The Japanese government simply got rid of its Iranian guest workers when jobs dried up. But it won't be as easy to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live in Japan without the rights of citizenship. The same is true of Mexicans working in the U.S., often illegally.

There is no quick or easy way out of this problem, especially in bad economic times. But Europe — and Japan, for that matter — should start by making economic migration legitimate. This means working out what jobs need to be filled, and welcoming those who will fill them, not as guests, but as equal citizens.

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College. His latest book is "Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents." © 2010 Project Syndicate (

The Japan Times: Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010.

(C) All rights reserved

Saturday, December 25, 2010

how little we need to be happy

After a full day of teaching and a long train journey, the comfort of a late dinner with a close friend. Perfect wine, delicious bread, slow conversation - the true warmth of Christmas. An oasis in this land of emotionally atrophied people and their pathetic lives.

The briefest respite from these mad past weeks of work, travel, grading - and sleeping so little.

Piles and piles of interesting books to read, loads of writing to catch up with, a few sad things to forget and forgive.

Feet firmly on the ground yet the head always lost in the clouds, always. The closest I can get to an idea of home.

How little we need to be happy indeed.

*       *       *
She fell
No jewels for the hurt
When she fell
Where is the mother?

Draw back the sheets
Shake off the sleep and complete me
As I complete you
There's a universe of disappointment to be lost

How little we need to be happy
How little we need to be really happy

And you my girl
Did I forget to sing?
You, brimming with life and with joy
And curiousity

And the lights won't go out
The stars refuse to dim
And everything goes on but not as before

"They removed his voice
And the silence overwhelmed him"
How little it takes

Some of us are undecided
We might come to you
To find a new way out of this one
She should pull us through

What have they done to you?
Come here let me hold you
Cry all your tears
The sorrows that threaten to overwhelm you

Let's rise up again

David Sylvian, from Blemish.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

what will survive, against the mediocre and the half alive

Lee Miller, 'Revenge on Culture', from Grim Glory (1940)

'Wo aber sind die Freunde? Bellarmin
Mit dem Gefahrten...'

Not in my lifetime, the love I envisage:
Not in this century, it may be. Nevertheless inevitable.
Having experienced a foretaste of its burning
And of its consolation, although locked in my aloneness
Still, although I know it cannot come to be
Except in reciprocity, I know
That true love is gratuitous, and will race through
The veins of the reborn world's generations, free
and sweet, like a new kind of electricity.

The love of heroes and of men like gods
Has been for long a strange thing on the earth
And monstrous to the mediocre. They
In whom such love is luminous can but transcend
The squalid inhibitions of those only half alive.
In blind content they breed who never loved a friend.

David Gascoyne, 'Eros Absconditus' in Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), pp.160.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

a glimpse into the depths of solitary absence

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality. 
                   T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets. 

To have the courage to stare disaster right in the face, to look into the depths of the abyss. However painful.

Is there any other way of getting out of it, of not sinking into total shipwreck?

To summon up the strength, to prepare yourself - and then to turn.

To get rid of yourself to find yourself.

Or maybe not as radical as that. Just this, this --

*       *       *

What you really are when faithful to the truth.

The day muffles it and the frenzied rhythm of work and routine is a pretext for ignoring it, in the same way that you frown upon and snub a person that tells you a truth you need to hear.

Yet at night, alone with yourself, you cannot escape it. Not for some form of masochism, but for the love of truth. You strain your ears, standing still, wide awake, because you have to face it somehow.

On rainy nights, strangely, with the wind blowing outside, it becomes more audible, almost close.


Does it bring you  reassurance, this truth? I don't know. You listen, listen, eventually it lulls you to sleep, and you rise again for another morning, yawning, but always a little changed.

There is something at once new and weary around your eyes, on your skin.

What you really are.

*       *       *

At Night, I often sit an hour out thus,
Attentive to a dull insistent roar --
Or not a roar, rather a kind of cry, and yet
No cry, for that would be a sound too clear,
And what I hear might come from underground,
It is so thick and muffled, and yet hollow-sounding too,
Although not resonant at all, but harsh and dead,
If dead is not too definite a word:
And whatsoever this dull urgent rumour be,
It holds me spellbound by the hour and more,
While I, with great longing to be free
From doubt about what it can signify,
Gaze up through a small skylight's panes and see
Nothing at all of my star's watch-fire
That may be burning in the black neglected sky;
Do not see even that blank square the window frames --
As though all sight lay blinded in my ears.
And then, returning suddenly again
To consciousness of my immediate self,
I've had a moment's glimpse into the depths
Of solitary absence through which stray
Our tired and restless bodies among all the dead things found
Strewn round them on all sides in an unanimated dream:
Dread has distracted us away from what is here
And what we really are when faithful to the truth;
So we must suffer hopelessly the sullen apathy
That reigns on a deserted theatre's stage
Where all night long we play out our null roles,
In a Morality that could be called 'No Man'.

David Gascoyne, from Night Thoughts (1955) in Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), pp. 212-13.

the wire along my way

Everybody's tortured, everyone's in chains.

I hate them and loathe them with strengthening abundance,
forehead-strong, and when my abundance, my overflowing
emotion, my abundance of the heart, my
moorland affluence and wealth which others call poverty,
when it streams like a fire seam,
I loathe them for binding my pearly toes.

I hate them because I am among their
other refugees. They put up the wire, wire, wire,
along my way,
which no one should do, for wire
is an industry, a containment, made in
Leeds or Wakefield Bar said, brought by 12-wheeled lorries
in unrolled bales like silver hay
from some industrial graveskin graveyard
completely contrary to the wings of my spirit.

Fraught I am with poor lip service,
destroyed and betrayed

Barry MacSweeney, from 'Pearl Against The Barbed Wire' in Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2003), pp. 249-50.

a haunting moment (2)

And yet another one, in a much more prosaic tone - but no less true - and focusing on something else that is pitifully missing in this sick country: trust in other human beings. On an equal footing: foreigners and nationals - and especially men and women...

*       *       *

Friendship has been a key theme of Chinese culture since ancient times. The second sentence of Confucius's Analects - 'When a friend comes from afar, is this not a joy?' - demonstrates the Chinese attitude towards the subject. But in Japan such examples are  rare. True friendship is not easy here. Long-term foreign residents complain that after ten or twenty years in the country they are lucky to have one Japanese they consider to be a true friend. Yet the problem goes deeper than the culture gap between foreigners and Japanese. The Japanese often tell me they can't make friends with each other; they say, "There are the people you knew in high school who remain bosom buddies for life. Everyone you meet after that cannot be trusted."
     One reason for this could be that the educational system [and society at large, I should add] traditionally discourages the Japanese from speaking their mind. They never quite trust each other, making friendships difficult. Another reason might be that hierarchical structures of society get in the way. In the old society the master-retainer relationship was a familiar one; relationships between equals were not.

Alex Kerr, Lost Japan (1996; Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2009), p. 75.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

a haunting moment (1)

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet....

                            Rudyard Kipling, from The Balad of East and West.

I disagree. They do meet every now and then, but the encounter is always perplexing, frustrating, annoying, sad, painful, heartbreaking, having at the same time the quality of a momentary, fleeting beauty.

What could have been, but never was. A door opened, a door closed. Just like that: no explanations given, no rationale.

A fleeting beauty that casts a long shadow, one that will never, never disappear. It will haunt you forever, however you try to forget.

No one has pondered more movingly on the perplexities of this dis/encounter than Pico Iyer in his awesome introduction to Donald Richie's no less awesome The Inland Sea, and about which I have written several times before (here and here, e.g.). Iyer's text is most appropriately titled 'A Call from the Mist'. I cannot resist leaving here the opening lines, with an implicit dedication.

Archetypal, allowing for numerous variations of gender, age, time, setting, situation. The essence is there, though. Unmistakable.

*       *       *

The foreigner in Japan, more than anywhere, stands at the edge of an intimacy that is closing slowly in his face. He walks along a beach, perhaps, as darkness falls, with a young, a beautiful girl, and they talk of loneliness, and all the places he has seen, the nights. The girl offers to introduce him to a local inn, where he will be taken care of, and they walk together up to a private room and sit by the window, looking out at the sea. Then he touches her arm, and the spell is broken. Giggling, she makes her diplomatic retreat. The next morning, when he rises to leave the small town by boat, sailing away into the mist, he sees her there, on the pier, with two friends, waiting for him with presents and goodbyes.
It is a haunting moment, and one that stands for a lifetime of such moments for those of us who find ourselves on this island of half-opened doors. It is made more touching by the fact that the girl knows she will never see the places that she dreams of; all her days will be spent in this forgotten town. And it is made more plangent by the fact that the foreigner confesses to himself (and to us) that the encounter is perplexing to him because he is "innocent despite experience" - and innocent not only because he sees no point in guilt.

Pico Iyer, 'A Call from the Mist: Introduction' in Donald Richie, The Inland Sea (1971; Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2002), pp. 5-6.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

the woman you cannot unmeet (2)


       The following day, after the green-curtain day, he was back. They ate cold spaghetti out of paper cups on the stoop. He said, I just don't know if I want to marry you. She snorted. What? He said, I'm sorry but I'm just not certain that you are my future wife. She spit some spaghetti out on the stoop in a little red clump and he thought it was gross and she was laughing again, not with, definitely at. He said, I always thought the woman I'd marry would hit me easy, in a bolt of lightning, and there is no lightning there is not even thunder there is not even rain. It all feels, well, foggy, he said. And she said, What makes you sure I want to marry you? and he said, Oh, hmmm, and she said, Why would I consider marrying a man whose brain is so bossy? I need a man with some calm, she said. He looked at her nose, thin and long and her eyes thin and long the other direction and her hair was straight and long and shone. He had a bite of spaghetti off her fork. They sat for a while on the stoop and watched the lizards skit and scat until the mailman came by and delivered some letters - two bills and a postcard from her cousin on an island. She made faces at the bills and laughed at the postcard and scrutinized the little type in the upper left-hand corner telling her where it was and then looked at the picture on the front for longer than he had ever looked at all the postcards of his entire life.
       When they made love that day it was one step closer to making sense and she brought them some wine afterward and they sat and watched the sunset through the green curtains, naked, with deep-bellied glasses of wine. The green darkened into black. He let his hand trace each of her vertebrae and she did not say, That tickles, stop, like he thought she might. She just looked out the muted curtain and her hair swished at an angle. He moved his fingers down her whole spine, one by one, and during the time it took to do that, his brain remained absolutely quiet.
       It is these empty spaces you have to watch out for, as they floodup with feeling before you even realize what's happened; before you find yourself, at the base of her spine, different.

Aimee Bender, 'The Meeting' in Willful Creatures (NY: Anchor, 2005), pp. 54-55.

the woman you cannot unmeet (1)

Work piles up on my desk at an alarming rate at this time of the year, but I can't resist the urge. The reading frenzy began with Robert Walser - eagerly awaiting a massive package from Amazon... - and in the meantime has taken me elsewhere.

One of the things that draws me to a writer's world is the capacity to render life's manifold absurdities and unexpectedness in the most down-to-earth register. At once funny and unsettling, playful and gloomy, a harsh light stubbornly illuminating your depths.

When reading Walser's tales 'The Man with the Pumpkin Head' or 'Nothing at All', I couldn't help thinking of Aimee Bender's wonderfully weird stories from Willful Creatures. And lo, I pick up a dog-eared copy from the shelf, and open it randomly only to find this absolute delight - which I leave here with an implicit dedication to kindred willful souls.

*       *       *

The Meeting

The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met. She was not the woman he expected to meet or planned to meet or had carved into his head in full dress with a particular nose and eyes and lips and a very particular brain. No, this was a different woman, the one he met. When he met her he could hardly stand her because she did not fit the shape in his brain of the woman he had planned so vigourously and extensively to meet. And the non-fit was uncomfortable and made his brain hurt. Go away, woman, he said, and the woman laughed, which helped for a second. He trailed the woman for a few days saying it was because he had nothing else to do, but in truth he did have plenty to do and he did not know why he was trailing her. His brain made a lot of shouts and static about his own brain's idea of color and sense of humor and what animals the woman he met would like (mammals) and his brain's own idea of how to be a member of the world, and everything that was sort of like him and yet different enough and still: this woman he met was the woman he met and however you try, you cannot unmeet.
       His brain was in utter panic at changing. His brain was very pleased with its current shape and did not want to shift, not one bit. This woman liked reptiles and fish. What sort of decent human being could possibly like reptiles and fish?
       He said, Go away, woman. You go away, she said, shooing him with her hand. You're the one following me around all the time.
       They went on a walk - or rather she went on a walk and he asked if he could join her - together over the small bridge which ran over a dry stream and looked down at rocks which jutted up like teeth. She talked significantly more than he expected the woman he met to talk and so while she was talking he thought she is surely, and clearly, not the woman for me. Blabbermouth, he thought. She paused at an oak tree and said, Did you stop listening? and so he started listening again and said some stuff himself, about this, about that. He liked talking to her. The woman said she did not know why she liked him, as he was being something of an irritation with all this static in his head and he said he was sorry, he liked her too, but his brain kept rejecting her and he did not know what to do about that. The woman said, Please, would you shut your brain down for five seconds and let the world participate a bit? No, said the man, I control the world. The woman's laughter bounced off the rocks below. The man laughed too but inside he still meant it.
       The woman said goodbye and went to her cottage and made some spaghetti and the next day guess who was at her door. Good afternoon. How are you, how are you. The spaghetti was fine-tuned and she was beautiful in the filtered sunlight and they made love that afternoon with the green sunlight through her green curtains. Her body was new to him and he did not like the way her shoulders were so broad and he very much liked the slope of her hips and he was scared because he did not know how to navigate the curves they made together. Later, when he would become a ship's captain on the waves of the water of their bodies, it turned out that those broad shoulders were the thing he would think of with the most lust and the most tenderness. Those broad shoulders would be what he would recognize in a crowd if they all had paper bags on their heads. Those broad shoulders he could spot across an ocean.

Aimee Bender, 'The Meeting' in Willful Creatures (NY: Anchor, 2005), pp. 51-53.


How easy it is to be unfair, monstrously unfair and hurtful to others.

To sulk and rage at the way other people mistreat you, ignore you and misunderstand your "difference" and suffering, but at the same time to be utterly unable to put your self-absorption in parentheses for a second and try to understand someone else's "difference" and suffering.

We do exist to contradict ourselves indeed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010



Then you wore me out.
Stone at the end of
an accusing finger,
flinched at your fist.

rasped by a tongue.
Your tongue,
prince of my dithering.

Now I'm a tree,
my own patient roots.
Freed from you,
thin in the wind.

Dockleaves dancing
in the dawn
and autumn rain.
A stone alone.

Wind in a tree
that made me
what I am: mad
and stone-lonely.

Scorched by August
in that foreign place.
December excluded
from the songs.


You can lap against
my absence forever,
beat your wings
in the dark of my leaving.

Alone on a crag
when you joy to the peewit,
remember I left you,
unhinged my dandling hand.

When you crouch alone
in the pillars of grass
broken by moonlight,
remember, rabbit-catcher,

the curse of anger
is in you. The shame
of fury and a harrowing
lust for control.

I wouldn't go with you
down that road. Now
we are both alone
by rivers we love.

Barry MacSweeney, from 'Flamebearer' in Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2003), pp. 174-75.

Monday, December 6, 2010


It has never been easy, but here it seems more difficult than anywhere else, with all these fragile, repressed male egos lurking around like paper tigers on the prowl.

There is nothing more detestable than to have your intentions grossly, grossly misunderstood, distorted, smeared.

And yet there is nothing you are more prepared to do: to fiercely defend yourself. To survive despite everything. To get back on your feet.

What you have always done. What you have always had to do. What you will go on doing.

For the sake of sanity.

To carry on being yourself, strong and vulnerable, worldly and naive, bold and bashful, pretentious and humble, affectionate and remote, miserable and happy.

True to yourself, true to life. Because life cannot be contained: grass grows through the cracks among the concrete, searching for air, sunshine, wind, rain, thunder.

No watertight compartments, no safety lids. The contents pouring out in joyful anarchy, body and soul unshielded, exposed, ready to take the next blow.

*       *       *

To have your brain picked
to have the pickings misunderstood
to be mistreated whether your success
increases or decreases
to have detraction move with admiration – in step
to have your time wasted
your intentions distorted
the simplest relationships in your thoughts twisted
to be USED and MISUSED
to be “copy” to be copied to want to cope out
cop out pull in and away
if you are a woman (and things are not utterly changed)
they will almost never believe you really did it
(what you did do)
they will worship you they will ignore you
they will malign you they will pamper you
they will try to take what you did as their own
(a woman doesn’t understand her best discoveries after all)
they will patronize you humor you
try to sleep with you want you to transform them
with your energy
They will berate your energy
they will try to be part of your sexuality
they will deny your sexuality or your work
they will depend on you for information for generosity
they will forget whatever help you give
they will try to be heroic for you
they will not help you when they might
they will bring problems
they will ignore your problems
a few will appreciate deeply
they will be loving you
as what you do as what you are
loving how you are being they will of course
be strong in themselves and clearly they will NOT
be married to quiet tame drones they will not say
what a great mother you would be
or do you like to cook and where you might expect
understanding and appreciation you must expect NOTHING
then enjoy whatever gives-to-you
as long as it does and however
and NEVER justify yourself just do what
you feel carry it strongly yourself

--Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (1996). Performance.
Reproduced from Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002). pp. 156-57.

the joys of reading

There are moments that just redeem everything and are a balm for your battered soul, as when a friend (thanks, dearest Jonathan!) introduces you to an unknown writer and a whole new world opens up.

Amazing, amazing Robert Walser. I shall hold you close forever keenly!

And has anyone ever described a boat trip so beautifully?

*       *       *

       Not that the water was crystal clear everywhere. Who would want to give orders to Nature? She makes no pretense of being other than she is. I don't know which is lovelier, boating on a lake or on a river, but this knowing needn't bother me. In the boat sat a few understandably contented people. A cloth canopy was stretched over their heads, and their course led beneath the twigs of the trees on the bank. Slowly they moved forward, for the rowers saw no reason to overexert themselves. What cause could there have been for this? The day is long from early morning to late in the evening. On a pleasure trip the hours don't admonish you to hurry up. It's fine to waste a little time now and then. 
       Odd similarities between things at rest and things flowing occurred to me during the trip that I, too, participated in, and I would have been delighted to have been as fascinating a stroyteller as one person there, who was asked to invent a tale so that the outing not become boring. The trip took place beneath the baldachin formed by the sky. Everyone listened to the teller's words as if to something heartening. Here and there fish, driven it seemed by an uncontrollable curiosity, bobbed upward from the depths to visibility, as though wishing to help the listeners be satisfied with the tale. On fish one finds no arms. Is that why they have such huge eyes and expressive mouths? Is it because they have no legs that they make the best swimmers? Doesn't river, Fluss, come from Flosse, fins, and aren't the latter an impediment to walking, and isn't this limitation that forms the foundation of their strength?
       A girl sitting with us in the boat compared travelling over the water to the imperceptible gliding and progress of growth, that of fruit for example, which perhaps would have little desire to ripen if it knew to what end.
       The thoughtful girl called ignorance a magnificent figure endowed with unconscious delights, sorrowful and splendid, not like those who learn arithmetic and writing, weep inwardly over their joy, and whose hearts tell them their laughter is a hardness, that they are incapable of enduring anything.

Robert Wasler, from 'Boat Trip' in Masquerade and Other Stories, trans. Susan Bernofsky (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990), pp. 199-200.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

there was a word

 ... you didn't say. Pen in hand, I took note.

What you may not know is that unsaid words and seething silences are my element. My tempestuous soul thrives on boiling waters, rough seas. However dark.

Yet, feigned indifference frets, wears it away like an acid tide.
Please have mercy on it.

(But I shall ride out this storm, don't worry. I will.)

*       *       *

There was
a word
in the dark.
Minuscule. Ignored.

It hammered in the dark.
It hammered
on the ground of water.

From the depths of time,
it hammered.
Against the wall.

A word.
In the dark.
Beckoning me.

Eugénio de Andrade, 'Havia uma Palavra', from Matéria Solar [Solar Matter].
Translated from the Portuguese by DK.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

eia, quis me amabit...?

Even though I have never been one to feel I could ever become 'rooted in one dear perpetual place', age and the current economic woes have compelled me, in recent times, to search for a more permanent job in academia.

Every time an opportunity arises, however, I get cold feet. The mere thought of spending the rest of my life in a small provincial town (and are there any permanent academic jobs elsewhere...?), stifled by administrative chores and bored silly with no one interesting to talk to fills my heart with dreams of wandering. The hell with dear perpetual places! The hell.

At iffy moments like these I find myself cherishing bygone ideals of scholarship, imagining how much more riveting and suited to my malcontent character, to my chronic detachment from money and status concerns, the life of one of those maverick medieval wandering scholars would have been.

A life wholly unconcerned with social and moral conventions as well as with the pettiness of local communities. A life wholly devoted to the pursuit of both knowledge and pleasure, beauty, love, as expressed through poetry, song, performance.

How far, far away modern scholarship has come from all this. And how dishearteaningly sad it is. Most definitely, I was born in the wrong age - too late in a world too old.

That is why the world of the Carmina Burana was in my mind a  lot on this last trip to nowhere. Its touching, unruly poetry gently reminding me of what should truly matter in life, however difficult the choices and prospects may seem.

Lest I forget and bury myself in the sand once again.

Lest I forget thee.

*       *       *

Floret silva nobilis
floribus et foliis.
ubi est antiquus meus amicus?
hinc equitavit.
eia, quis me amabit? 

Floret silva undique.
Nach mime gesellen ist mir we.
Gruonet der walt allenthalben,
wa ist min geselle also lange?
Der ist geriten hinnen.
Owi, wer sol mich minnen? 

The noble forest is in bloom with flowers and leaves.
Where is my old companion?
He has ridden away.
Alas, who will love me? 

The forest is in bloom on all sides.
I grieve for my companion.
The forest is green on all sides.
Why is my companion so long?
He has ridden away.
Alas, who will love me?

from Carmina Burana


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

words, wide night

A slow night journey on a provincial train, with a gentle rain falling outside, is a balm for my daydreaming nature.

How inane and petty worldly pursuits are when everything is seen through this fog of desire, through this wet window-glass tenderly sprinkled with thoughts of you.

*      *      *

Words, Wide Night

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this is

what it is like or what it is like in words.  

Carol Ann Duffy, from The Other Country.

Monday, November 22, 2010

the feathered hour

Max Ernst, Cage, Forest and Black Sun

Were it to have a name, it would be this: the feathered hour.

That tenuous, precarious moment when it may happen, despite the smallest probabilities, the disencounters, the forebodings.

In a parallel universe, in the realm of poetic possibilities - the enigma of suspension.

A 'maybe, maybe' that could be so...       or...

... lead us somewhere away from this shipwreck, if you weren't so numb with pain, or fear, or doubt, or delusion, or whatever it is I don't know. (And there is so much I don't know indeed.)

In any case, unable to move, to utter the words that matter, you scarecrow scaring away the birds.

Poems such as this are messages in a bottle I send to a stranger, whoever you are. Or is it the last bubble of oxygen I'm sending from under here?

Because there is nothing else I can do.

I know no other language outside this one that is not an empty shell, worn-out, oversimplifying, misunderstanding. Life, feelings are so much more complicated.

Words fail me thus. Because I'm in the water --

Not as yet drowning, but waving, waving.

*       *       *

The Cage

In the waking night
The forests have stopped growing
The shells are listening
The shadows in the pools turn grey
The pearls dissolve in the shadow
And I return to you

Your face is marked upon the clockface
My hands are beneath your hair
And if the time you mark sets free the birds
And if they fly away towards the forest
The hour will no longer be ours

Ours is the ornate birdcage
The brimming cup of water
The preface to the book
And all the clocks are ticking
All the dark rooms are moving
All the air's nerves are bare

Once flown
The feathered hour will not return
And I shall have gone away.

from David Gascoyne, Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), p. 43.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Body, Words

(Photo by EK)

... Dry casques of departed locusts
speaking a shell of speech... The words rattle: shells given out by shells.
                                                                            Ezra Pound, from Canto VII

... there is no promised land beyond the body; beyond the word.
                                    Eugénio de Andrade, from "Lines of Winter"

How often indeed we seem to live beyond them, empty shells, time-worn things.

Yet there is nothing like an intimation of grief and loss, followed by a self-imposed interruption to the ruthless order of things, to bring you to your senses.

To remind you that even your neglected language has a body, a physicality of its own. Living matter.

A pliant tongue, slowly caressing you as it once did, as when reading Eugénio, hopelessly in love, would bring you to tears.

*       *       *

They are like a crystal,
Some a dagger,
some a blaze.
merely dew.

Secret they come, full of memory.
Insecurely they sail:
cockleboats or kisses,
the waters trembling.

Abandoned, innocent,
They are woven of light.
They are the night.
And even pallid
they recall green paradise.

Who hears them? Who
gathers them, thus,
cruel, shapeless,
in their pure shells?

Eugénio de Andrade, "Palavras" [Words], translated from the Portuguese by Alexis Levitin. From Inhabited Heart (LA: Perivale Press, 1985).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

night thought, on eve of departure

To be able to understand everything before it has been said. Is there any greater blessing, any greater curse?

Making the pain less sudden, less acute, yet so much more enduring - the unwanted company of a shadow that grows familiar with the years.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I wish, I wish

from and for Stevie Smith

Every now and then the touch of a soft and crushable animal, its fragile fur inside my hand like soft feathers, takes me away from this world's stone-hard heart into a much better, livable one.

It fills my heart with longings for sea and sun and light.

For some lost, faraway home.

*       *       *

Oh I wish that there were some wing, some wing,
Under which I could hide my head,
A soft grey wing, a beautiful thing,
Oh I wish that there were such a wing,

And then I should suddenly be quite sure
As I never was before,
And fly far away, and be gay instead
Of being hesitating and filled with dread,
Oh I wish I could find a wing.

But today as I walk on the pavement I see
Where a car is parked, where a car is parked,
In the wheel's bright chromium hub I see
A world stretching out that is like but unlike
The world that encloses me.

And I wish to pass through the shining hub
And go far away, far away,
As far as I might on the wings of the dove
That first I thought would succour me
And carry me far away,
Oh the hub is my love far more than the dove
That first I thought would succour me.

And now the shining beautiful hub
Opens its door to me,
I enter, I enter, through the hub I have entered
The world that shines so bright,
The road stretches there in ochre; and blue
Is the sky I am walking into; and white
Is the beach I perceive of a heavenly sea
A-roll in the realms of light,
It rolls in the realms of light.

Stevie Smith, Collected Poems (NY: New Directions, 1983), p. 449.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the dark dialogues (2)

René Magritte, Les Amants [The Lovers], 1928

I am the shell held 
To Time's ear and you
May hear the lonely leagues
Of the kittiwake and the fulmar.

Or I am always only 
Thinking is this the time
To look elsewhere to turn
Towards what was it
I put myself out 
Away from home to meet?
Was it this only? Surely
It is more than these words
See on my side
I went halfway to meet.

And there are other times.
But the times are always 
Other and now what I meant
To say or hear or be 
Lies hidden where exile 
Too easily beckons.
What if the terrible times
Moving away find 
Me in the end only 
Staying where I am always 
Unheard by a fault.

So to begin to return
At last neither early 
Nor late and go my way
Somehow home across
This gesture become
Inhabited out of hand.
I stop and listen over
My shoulder and listen back
On language for that step
That seems to fall after
My own step in the dark.

Always must be the lost
Or where we turn, and all
For a sight of the dark again.
The farthest away, the least
To answer back come nearest.

And this place is taking
Its time from us though these
Two people or voices 
Are not us nor has
The time they seem to move in
To do with what we think
Our own times are. Even
Where they are is only
This one inhuman place.
Yet somewhere a stone
Speaks and maybe a leaf
In the dark turns over.
And whoever I meant
To think I had met
Turns away further
Before me blinded by
This word and this word.

See how presently 
The bull and the girl turn
From what they seemed to say,
And turn there above me
With that star-plotted head
Snorting on silence.
The legend turns. And on 
Her starry face descried
Faintly astonishment.
The formal meadow fades
Over the ever-widening
Firth and in their time
That not unnatural pair
Turn slowly home.

This is no other place
Than where I am, between
This word and the next.
Maybe I should expect
To find myself only 
Saying that again
Here now at the end.
Yet over the great
Gantries and cantilevers
Of love, a sky, real and 
Particular is slowly 
Startled into light.

W. S. Graham, from 'The Dark Dialogues' in Malcom Mooney's Land (1970). Collected Poems 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 164-65. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

the dark dialogues (I)

René Magritte, Les Amants [The Lovers], 1928

I always meant to only
Language swings away
Further before me.

Language swings away
Before me as I go
With and again the night rising
Up to accompany me
And that other fond
Metaphor, the sea.
Images of night
And the sea changing
Should know me well enough.

Wanton with riding lights
And staring eyes, Europa
And her high meadow bull
Fall slowly their way
Behind the blindfold and
Across this more or less
Uncommon place.

And who are you and by
what right do I waylay
You where you go there
Happy enough striking
Your hobnail in the dark?
Believe me I would ask
Forgiveness but who
Would I ask forgiveness from?

I speak across the vast
Dialogues in which we go
To clench my words against
Time or the lack of time
Hoping that for a moment
They will become for me
A place I can think in
And think anything in,
An aside from the monstruous.

And this is no other
Place than where I am,
Here turning between
This word and the next.
Yet somewhere the stones
Are wagging in the dark
And you, whoever you are,
That I am other to,
Stand still by the glint
Of the dyke's sparstone,
Because always language
Is where the people are.

W. S. Graham, from 'The Dark Dialogues' in Malcom Mooney's Land (1970). Collected Poems 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 158-59.


Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.
            ---F. Nietzsche

Written with your own blood. While it's certainly not the only one, this remains my main yardstick for judging good writing - for judging all literature and art, for that matter.

Thus my intense disliking for that kind of writing which is no more than a by-product of literary criticism: full of witticisms and literary allusions showing what a well-read and well-travelled chap you are, but with no blood running through it. Begging for the self-indulgent applause of a learned coterie, but leaving all the others out in the cold.

It might impress me every now and then, but it doesn't affect me - it doesn't touch my emotions.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Once I wanted to prove the world was sick. Now I want to prove it healthy. The detection of sickness means that death has established itself as an element of the timetable; it has come within the range of the measurable. Where there is no time there is no sickness.

Roy Fisher, from 'City' in The Dow Low Drop (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1996), p. 27.
*   *   *

I've complained about it here and umpteen times before - and will continue to do so, for nothing upsets me most, nothing curtails my relationship with others and damages my health and cuts my life short as much as this absolutely pathological lack of time.

No matter how many years I go on living in this country, I shall never get used to what passes for life here, this senseless rushing from non-place to non-place, from non-conversation to non-conversation, from interruption to interruption. This sheer impossibility of finding some livable space-time inside other people's existence, because they're always dashing off elsewhere when you finally arrive, exhausted...

An unwitting flirtation with death whose price you only realise too late, when you've already paid for it because life has gone by - and won't come back. And, most heartbreaking of all, the laying waste of the only thing that gives meaning to life and makes it worth living, and whose name I won't say because it's way too precious. Way too rare. 

Rats! The song goes on outside, from a neighbour's half-opened window:

...'Cause every kiss that we don't give
Another life that we don't live
And mama it's so much sweeter when we do...

To the point.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the secret name

To be lulled to sleep by the wind blowing outside, tenderly shaking the house to its foundations. Both stranger and friend indeed. The ever-gentle reminder.

*     *     *

The terrible, lightest wind in the world
Blows from word to word, from ear
To ear, from name to name, from secret
Name to secret name. You maybe
Did not know you had another
Sound and sign signifying you.

W. S. Graham, from Implements in Their Places in Collected Poems 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), p. 233.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

listening, listening

The strange silence on the eve of events, revelations, decisions that may change the course of your present life - or simply turn out to be one more disappointment, another declaration of tragedy, or some stupid impossibility.

In any case, wary, you just lie down listening, listening. Not wasting energy with pointless speculation, just listening.

Your attention turned to the poetic possibilities: they shall never let you down, the strange worlds.

As though, as though... but not       quite          Yet...?

*        *        *

October night

"asleep among appearances"
Octavio Paz

Strange world.
The warbling and ringing of car and shop alarms in the street,
shadows on the ceiling.
A large mauve head appearing in an ochre background.
As though a dream landscape but not.
As though a painting but not.

Eyes shut
"you were in another day"
off in the distant mountains
where the darkness breathes
and the black silhouette of a hillside
edges a charcoal grey sky.
A seeming solidity, though thin as paper.

A near astonishment at the "facts",
the surrounding sounds and sights.
The "what is this?", "who is...?"
No step back possible

But a step towards?   out?

Behind your grey eyes...    These surfaces

A watchfulness, the distance between,
all words probing towards this puzzle.
The possible bridges?     in a clash of dreams -
though that too poetic and abstract to grasp,
shake with your hands.

A past "real", memories haunting amongst reality;
the present so...?       dazed?    startled?

The colours of the dim light
projected through blinds onto a ceiling,
the feel of a cotton pillowcase on my cheek
And beyond that?

Not avoiding thought by a fence of questions,
but somehow unable...               to move

Clinging onto the rock face
The rain beating on the skylight
Clipped on
Floating like a sleeping angel
who then wakes touching the softeness below

Lee Harwood, from Morning Light: 1989-96 in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004), pp. 416-17.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

whatever may come

There are nights like this. Too tired to sleep, too tired to write, too tired to read - except heart-warming, soothing words as these.

Late journeys

You think you'll sleep so well tonight
warmed with the glow of feeling precious
to someone else out there.     Can it be?

You don't sleep that well,
but what's that simple?
Us animals snuffle around so eagerly.

At dusk - coral pink clouds
lined up along the horizon
like mysterious monuments symbolising "Hope".

A weighty full moon hangs over the pier,
silvers the sea, churns our hearts.
Warm silk summer nights.

The orange lights of provincial railway stations.
People walking home, people taking the last train,
shouting across streets, talking on the platform.

It seems all right
whatever may come.

Lee Harwood, from Late Journeys 1996-1998 in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004), p. 458.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

not too far away, I hope


I love I love you tucked away
In a corner of my time looking
Out at me for me to put
My arm round you to comfort you.

I love you more than that as well
You know. You know I live now
In Madron with the black, perched beasts
On the shoulder of the gable-end.

The first day of October's bright
Shadows go over the Celtic fields
Coming to see you. I have tucked
You I hope not too far away.

W. S. Graham, from "Implements in Their Places", in Collected Poems, 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 199-200.

Monday, October 11, 2010

wanting to say something


This morning I am ready if you are,
To hear you speaking in your new language.
I think I am beginning to have nearly
A way of writing down what it is I think
You say. You enunciate very clearly
Terrible words always just beyond me.

I stand in my vocabulary looking out
Through my window of fine water ready
To translate natural occurrences
Into something beyond any idea
Of pleasure. The wisps of April fly
With light messages to the lonely.

This morning I am ready if you are
To speak. The early quick rains
Of Spring are drenching the window-glass.
Here in my words looking out
I see your face speaking flying
In a cloud wanting to say something.

W. S. Graham, from "Implements in Their Places", in Collected Poems, 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), p. 199.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

on a rainy day, sick & world-weary

... and waiting for some miracle.

Photo by Beerbauf 

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then ---
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel.
For that rare, random descent.

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. and intr. Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I am Vertical

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimallight of the stars,
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them--
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. and intr. Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).

* * *

I've recently bumped into it on a web site dedicated to "neurotic poets", and couldn't help recalling how this poetry once meant the world to me, in all its madness, in all its lucidity. It spoke to me and for me at a time when I was very, very close to losing the grip on everything.

I haven't returned to it for so long, but it's always been in my mind - a dark contrast to lights that would have otherwise remained unseen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

the heart of another

Max Ernst, Cage, Forest and Black Sun


For the heart of another is a dark forest. 
Ford Madox Ford, Memories & Impressions, 1911.

More than an island, a thick forest indeed, through which you stumble in the dark and where you may lose your bearings when stepping too far among tigers and madmen.

Yet it could also lead you to the most astounding other-places, beyond fear and loathing.

(What does it take to learn the difference, though? What risks?)

timely reminder

It can be triggered by the most trivial of episodes, but the message you get is crystal clear. A timely reminder of the fickleness of human bonds, loyalties and affections, despite your best efforts to go against the grain. Lest you sustain any illusions about them (I ceased to, anyway, a long time ago).

Again, Camus phrased it most crudely in his Carnets when he wrote that "it is only your will that keeps [most] people attached to us (not that they wish you ill but because they don't care) [and that] the others are always able to be interested in something else". They are always able to be more interested in themselves, I should add, in this increasingly and appallingly self-absorbed age we live in.

Disheartening, but sadly true.

Note taken of, for future reference.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Marc Chagall, Mounting the Ebony Horse

What can you say about him that hasn't already been said thousands of times before...? Yet it's never enough to repeat it, because it doesn't cease to amaze: how the work of someone whose life spanned the whole of the twentieth century and witnessed its unspeakable atrocities, preserved throughout such a childlike outlook on life, on memory, on the world. Such a sense of wonder, despite all the tragedies and losses.

An unmissable opportunity to revisit it at the University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts, in Ueno. Till October 11th.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

our own private ocean (2)

I am interested in establishing as many dialogues between form and theme as possible. As with natural form, [...] this may imply a simple plan, the details of which continually open onto other details. Not so much an onion as a bush, with a readily apprehensible outline, its finer divisions going in every direction. I don't expect the reader to sit with a magnifying glass and geometrical instruments plotting every tangent. But they're there. And they happen naturally enough. Writing is not entirely conscious. Very few activities of any interest are. A technique like this is an act of faith in the magnificence of the human brain, anyone's brain. Perception is a creative act, far outpacing the capabilities of camera, microphone and other sensors. How can one not be poetic with minds so nimble and vast?

Randolph Healy, from 'The Wandering Wood' in Vectors: New Poetics, ed. Robert Archambeau (San Jose: Writers Club Press, 2001), p. 92 [emphasis mine]

Friday, October 1, 2010

our own private ocean (1)

Steven Rose estimates the activity of the conscious mind as 100 bits per second. The comparison of this to the sensory flux and mental processing is even more striking, something along the lines of thimble, cathedral and ocean. Which brings me back to the question [...]: how is communication possible? Given the amount of processing which so vastly outstrips the senses, what is there to stop us disappearing into our own private ocean? Indeed, what is there to stop us abandoning any semblance of reality for a private fantasy? Clearly this is an option. But what prevents it from being obligatory?
Given the grandeur of the human mind [...], one might ask why consciousness is so relatively puny. Why a bubble floating in all that cognitive space? Perhaps we need to reduce out interior awareness, to avoid complete paralysis in the face of the simplest decisions. A highly filtered subset of the sense flux is prioritised, disproportionately in terms of magnitude, but not in terms of survival. In positive terms it is a lifeline, ensuring we have some connection with 'reality'. Obviously, it is important not to be lost in one's own innards if there are tigers on the prowl. But as with pain, sometimes nature overdoes things. Our insensitivity to our own vastness causes us to persistently underestimate people, especially other people.

Randolph Healy, from 'The Wandering Wood' in Vectors: New Poetics, ed. Robert Archambeau (San Jose: Writers Club Press, 2001), pp. 88-89. [emphasis mine]